Bill Moyers Documentary Exposes Risks of Toxic Chemicals
Of over 80,000 man-made chemicals registered with the Environmental Protection Agency for use in commerce, only 43% have been tested for their effect on public health and safety -- one of the "risks that come with the benefits of the chemical revolution," Bill Moyers reported in his two-hour documentary, "Trade Secrets," which premiered on PBS Monday. Based on 50 years of "secret" and "confidential" internal chemical industry documents recently released by the Environmental Working Group, the report featured interviews with public health experts, historians, scientists, and physicians considering the "questionable" success of the government in regulating the chemical industry. Dr. Richard Lemen, deputy director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, called Moyers' assessment that "we are human beings unwittingly exposed to hundreds of toxic chemicals that have been tested enough to know they're toxic, but not tested enough to know the risks" a "fine summary of affairs." Moyers reports that members of the Chemical Manufacturers Association knew that they were exposing their employees to "modern poisons not only widespread but long-lasting," such as vinyl chloride and phthalate at levels that were "more toxic" than government regulations would allow. For example, a 1966 letter from BF Goodrich to the Union Carbide Corporation, the Imperial Chemical Industries, and the Monsanto Company states, "Gentlemen, there is no question but that skin lesions, absorption of bone of the terminal joints of the hands, and circulatory changes can occur in workers associated with the polymerization of PBC." Several documents cited on the program also list cases where CMA's own scientists found "sufficiently clear-cut" connections between chemical exposure and life-threatening illnesses, but rejected recommendations to reduce exposure and changed the reported evidence to support the conclusion that plant environments were safe for workers. Public Health Historian Dr. Gerald Markowitz of John Jay College said that the situation could be construed as "evidence of an illegal conspiracy" because the chemical industry possessed the information, knew its significance, and did not tell the government out of fear of losing money, all while claiming to protect their work force. Only when four employees died from a rare form of liver cancer linked to chemical exposure in the 1980s did public awareness begin to grow.
The documents also demonstrate chemical industry efforts and funding to thwart government agencies and legislation designed to safeguard public health. For example, Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of Preventive Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine estimates that a 10 year administrative delay in reducing exposure to benzine resulted in 492 unnecessary deaths. Landrigan said, "We have to presume chemicals are guilty unless they are proven innocent. What is needed is an unpolluted political structure that is empowered to set regulations that protect the public health." When asked by Moyers what public health policy should come out of this issue, Landrigan responded with four guidelines: "thorough, independent testing of chemicals"; an "efficient, effective process" to replace dangerous chemicals with safe alternatives; nationwide testing of american bloodstreams as begun by the CDC; and national "right to know" initiatives like measure 65 in California which mandates that chemical companies must warn California consumers of possible side-effects of exposure to their products so that consumers have the option of bypassing or limiting contact with potentially harmful substances (Moyers, "Trade Secrets," PBS, 3/26).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.